Monday, July 16, 2007

Zimbabwe House, Strand, London

On holiday in the Mediterranean you’re used to admiring decaying statuary from the ancient world. But you don’t expect to find flaking limbs and headless torsos decorating a 20th-century building in the middle of London. So what’s going on at the corner of London’s Agar Street and the Strand? It’s a long story – one involving two up-and-coming artists, the building’s two very different owners, and that old chestnut of the last century, artistic controversy.

It all began in the early 1900s, when the architect Charles Holden was commissioned to design a new headquarters building for the British Medical Association. Holden, an architect who later became famous as the designer of some of the capital’s finest modernist underground stations, produced a building with eighteen tall niches, and invited the young sculptor Jacob Epstein to fill these with statuary appropriate to the building’s users.

Epstein rose to the challenge, carving a sequence of larger-than-lifesize nude figures representing the ages of man and subjects such as ‘Chemical Research’ and ‘Primal Energy’. When the scaffolding came down in 1908 to reveal the first of the figures, the public was startled. The full-frontal nudity, not to mention the wrinkled flesh of a grandmaternal woman holding a baby, proved too much for some. A campaign against the statues began, with protests from a group called the National Vigilance Society and a raging debate in the press. In a battle that prefigured the arguments surrounding D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1960s, the Evening Standard declared that ‘no careful father’ would let his daughter see such depravity, while Epstein’s fellow artists and intellectuals mostly rallied to his cause. They saw the dignity of Epstein’s figures and responded positively to the artist’s aim, to create ‘noble and heroic forms to express in sculpture the great primal facts of man and woman’. The BMA saw sense, and the statues survived.

But the saga didn’t end there. In 1935 the building was bought by the Rhodesian High Commission and they didn’t like the statues. When they inspected the figures they discovered that their stone was decaying – how tragic it would be if the extremities of the figures fell off on to pedestrians below. Such mishaps had to be prevented, of course, but instead of repairing the figures, the High Commission had the dangerous bits lopped off, leaving the statues in the sorry, mutilated state in which they remain. In spite of their maltreatment, their 'noble and heroic' character survives.

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